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Beethoven's "Emperor" is in pianist Diedre Irons’ bones.
"I love that feeling."
Irons first played the piece in 1978 with the Auckland Philharmonia, a year after arriving in New Zealand from Canada. Now, more than 40 years later, she is about to play it with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.
"I’ve probably played it half a dozen times on different occasions. Each time you go back to a piece like that you gain more insight and are able to almost unconsciously allow it to unfold."
The most notable recent occasion was with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. The planned tour was cancelled due to Covid-19 but she got to play a postponed concert in July in front of a full audience while the concert was streamed internationally.
"That was a big deal for me. I can’t imagine how many concerts were not taking place on that day in the world because of Covid."
Then Covid struck again, this time preventing the DSO’s planned "Russian Rhapsody" concert from going ahead as performers lived in Auckland.
So it "pivoted", calling on Irons to play and Dunedin-based conductor Kenneth Young to lead the orchestra instead.
"We’re really delighted these outstanding musicians can join us at such late notice," DSO general manager Philippa Harris says.
Irons is more than happy to be coming to Dunedin to perform the piece, which she has also recorded with conductor Marc Taddei and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.
"We performed them all and recorded them all in one year which was a lot of work. That was started by a concert Marc kicked off after 9/11 as a memorial for the victims. The piece he asked me to play was the slow movement of the ‘Emperor’. It’s a tear-jerker really. Out of that came the idea of recording all five of the concerti. So it’s quite meaningful to me."
Irons also enjoys the variety of the Beethoven sets.
"The first concerto you almost wonder if it is Mozart, then it progresses through to the fifth. The fourth is very introspective and has a more introspective side while the fifth is quite strong.
"There is so much variety within a set of Beethoven pieces. There is just such a wide spectrum of styles within the same composer."
She describes the second movement as "probably the most beautiful" of all the five Beethoven piano concertos.
"It’s just exquisite."
The delay in performing the piece this year with the NZSO meant she had the piece, which is physically demanding, ready early.
"I had the task of keeping it fresh and in my fingers for quite a long time. Now coming back to it, it’s in my bones which I love, I love that feeling."
It also made her think of the first time she played it; she remembers thinking of it as a series of technical challenges, but now she recognises the "genius" of it.
"The more deeply you get to know a piece the more you find in it — you see a picture. It’s an exciting piece, it’s full of pageantry; it’s got a lot of humour in it too. A lot of dynamic contrasts. I feel very lucky to be able to say my tools of trade are things like this."
Irons (76) feels a sort of ownership, almost mastery, over these pieces.
"One’s allowed to say that now, at my time of life. I’ve spent my entire life working at these, giving them most of my energy, most of my time and it’s the most rewarding thing I can imagine.
"I never imagined doing anything else. That feeling of just knowing. I enjoy it."
As a "child prodigy", Irons always knew playing the piano was what she wanted to do.
There was a piano in her home in Winnipeg, Canada, as both her parents played and she would pick out tunes on it as a preschooler.
"They finally let me have lessons when I was 4. It’s a typical child prodigy story."
She debuted with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12, playing the Schumann piano concerto.
Despite her talent, her mother "sat on me very hard", as the thing she dreaded most was that Irons would become conceited.
"It was just what I did. I don’t remember anything but being excited to bound on stage."
That was until she was 16 when she became aware she was doing something quite difficult in front of a lot of people.
"I started to get scared."
Over the years she has accepted the fear and decided stage fright can be transformed into a very energetic focus during performance.
"You focus 100% on the music. If you let your mind get in the way and say what comes next, that’s when you get into trouble. Not that it’s totally automatic. You are listening to the picture of the piece in your mind and physical body."
However, it took a long time to get to that realisation.
"I can remember lying on dressing room floors feeling the energy flowing through my fingertips and doing all sorts of different things trying to convince myself I could walk on stage and do it."
These days, technology has alleviated some of the stress with the ability to use small tablet computers, although it is not something she would do with a concerto.
"They’re quite unobtrusive. It is the memorising of things that is quite stressful but it is also the liberating part so you have to do it."
Irons has done a lot of teaching, beginning at her alma mata the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia before she came to New Zealand with her then husband who had a job with the NZSO.
"I didn’t plan to stay but planning has never been my forte. I ended up staying. Part of why I feel like one of those Kiwis born overseas, I’m just so grateful to live out this part of my life here.
"There is variety in what I can do and the community of musicians in New Zealand is fantastic."
She taught at the University of Canterbury from 1992-2003 and at the New Zealand School of Music from 2003-12.
While it is awful to say, Covid has provided her with some "windfalls" such as the Dunedin concert, she says.
It has been at least 10 years since she played with the DSO. She thinks the last time was soon after she returned to New Zealand from Mexico unaware she had broken a finger in a fall.
"It’s not one of my fondest memories, playing Brahms’ second concerto with a broken finger."
She was also called on to fill in at the World’s Edge Festival in Central Otago when a pianist could not get out of Auckland.
"It was lovely. Lovely music and people and very successful."
Despite the decades of playing, Irons has found her hands holding up well to the demands.
"I’m always aware they could say no to me at any time but so far they’re good. I think just playing music every day for hours is really good for your physical wellbeing — it keeps you molecules lined up and it must be good for your mind."
At home she plays a Steinway model M which she got it in 1969 in Philadelphia; she has it shipped to New Zealand.
"It’s on its second set of strings. It’s perfect for me. I love it. It’s all chipped and battered like a family member too."
At the moment she is learning new repertoire but not to performance point. She has one student so will learn her new pieces. She also has several performances coming up, depending on Covid restrictions.
"It needs to be enough so I stay in shape. It takes a reasonable amount of practice."